What is intergenerational trauma? And how do you heal it?

  
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For those of you in the community, the Winter Healing Circle will be on Saturday, December 19 at 10am PST/1pm EST. Check out this post for the Zoom information! The theme of this healing circle is intergenerational trauma. There will be meditation and space for the community to share experiences.

If you aren’t part of the community and would like to join, even if you just want to try it out this month, you can subscribe here:


I first heard about intergenerational trauma through this illustration by therapist Ayan Mukherjee:

When I saw this post, it was like 🤯🤯🤯!!! I was grateful for the South Asian example because, while I was aware that India was colonized, I hadn’t yet internalized what this meant for me.

According to article “The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come” by Tori DeAngelis:

One of the first articles to note the presence of intergenerational trauma appeared in 1966, when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, and colleagues documented high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors (Canada’s Mental Health, Vol. 14). Since then, researchers have been assessing anxiety, depression and PTSD in trauma survivors and their progeny, with Holocaust survivors and their children the most widely studied and over the longest period of time.

This is also the topic of the text The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

When I imagined the impact of colonization, slavery, assimilation, and other types of disenfranchisement on humans generation after generation, as illustrated by Mukherjee, it recontextualized how we carry the wounds of our ancestors before us.

And the DNA strand taught me that this trauma literally lives in the body through epigenetics.

What is epigenetics?

According to the CDC, “Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.”

I wouldn’t be a good librarian if I didn’t say that there is debate about intergenerational trauma, also referred to as transgenerational trauma and inherited trauma, and how its oversimplifications in popular media can be misleading. The article “The Public Reception of Putative Epigenetic Mechanisms in the Transgenerational Effects of Trauma” (2018) states (emphasis by me):

Terms such as “inherited trauma” also obfuscate rather than clarify what is being transmitted and how—indeed, how can an experience be inherited? It is clearer to frame the discussion around how the impact of a trauma occurring to the parent can affect the offspring. Thus, the term “intergenerational trauma” is misleading because it is meant to refer to the intergenerational manifestation of the effects of parental trauma.

It continues (emphasis by me):

In some ways, the presence of epigenetic marks associated with preconception parental trauma seems to imply a kind of blameless and predestined legacy. Perhaps the widespread reception of this research speaks to a cultural fear of powerlessness and lack of agency, or reflects a cultural moment in which objective evidence of a trauma-induced alteration seems to validate suffering that has been dismissed or trivialized. Regardless of the explanations for popular interest in the research, the determination that epigenetic mechanisms provide a potential vehicle for the intergenerational transmission of parental trauma effects does contribute meaningfully to the social and cultural narrative.

I appreciate the differentiation between predestined trauma and the effects of parental trauma on children because this shows that if we heal our traumas, we can reduce the chances of projecting the effects of trauma transmitted to ourselves upon others.

The tricky thing about research is that all of it uses language that is invested in Western Eurocentric ways of language and thinking. It doesn’t consider collective ways of being and living, and so much medical research focuses on White men. It cannot measure what it means to feel connected to or disconnected from your ancestors. And then there is just general scientific variation.

In the research article “Environmentally-Induced Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Implication of PIWI Interacting RNAs”, Casier, Boivin, Carré, and Teysset (2019) write (emphasis by me):

One stress may cause multiple epigenetic changes. Among these changes, some of them are probably independent, whereas other modifications work together. Nature is a combination of numerous stressors including temperature, pressure variations, pollution, starvation, drought as well as competition for food, social stresses, and so on. It is unlikely that one stress can act only on one biological process, but even if this is the case, we can expect that the addition of all these stresses will impact several important pathways.

A balance between transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and epigenetic reprogramming occurs at each generation, and these processes are tightly regulated during development. Several factors are capable of tipping this epigenetic balance toward transgenerational inheritance, notably after stress exposure. 

I think it’s hard to argue that if someone goes through serious trauma, it doesn’t affect the people around them. And if the people who raised you were on the receiving end of these effects and were not able to heal these effects, then wouldn’t that affect you? While genetic changes are not reversible, epigenetic changes are possible.

So when I talk about intergenerational trauma, this is what I’m talking about.

What about systemic trauma?

Did I just make up the term “systemic trauma” without doing any research? Yes. Do I feel bad about it? No.

I think it’s important to understand how current “-isms” and oppressions like racism, capitalism, sexism, ableism, classism, the gender binary, and heteronormativity can have traumatic effects, especially if you identify from a marginalized population.

While ancestral and intergenerational wounds matter, we also have to acknowledge present effects. We still battle day-to-day global challenges of White supremacy, food insecurity, geopolitical conflict, climate disasters, lack of healthcare access, and, now, a pandemic. (Hot take: these are all related). And while we think these don’t all affect us directly, that isn’t true.

Take the recent farmer protests in Punjab India. Maybe you think this doesn’t affect you, but India is also the largest producer of cotton in the world. Global movements have effects - you can read more about this here. And this is just one example.

This systemic trauma, combined with the effects of historical oppression, puts us in positions to just SURVIVE on a daily basis. Unless you have expansive generational wealth (and even if you do) capitalism asks us to compete and it disconnects communities from each other and from their land. As a result, social and racial divisions emerge. This is a recipe for feeling burned out, unworthy, shameful, and powerless.

So how do we heal intergenerational trauma?

The first step is always awareness. And with awareness comes learning and unlearning. We are all unique individuals. If you have a sibling who was raised under the same parental figure(s) as you, I’m guessing they reacted in ways that were different than you. Yet, there are similarities to your experiences.

So while this is a personal investigation, it’s also a collective one. Here are some ways to get started:

Discover your ancestry

You can do this formally through one of those DNA tests and/or informally by talking to family or recounting stories (verbally or written) about your family’s history. I also suggest doing some research about your ancestry through books, historical texts, oral histories (SAADA has some great collections for those who identify as South Asian), and old letters. I always recommend finding resources that have a decolonized perspective, which greatly differs from what we learned in traditional history classes.

Find community

We are social beings who need connection with others to feel safe. 2020 has shown us how social connection is so important.

This is why finding communities that you can identify with in terms of ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, age, and/or ability, is so important if you want to be held and supported in this process. (This is why The Healing Hype has a community component.)

While social media can be a scary place, it can also be a nourishing place that contains multitudes of communities. I’m part of several Asian and South Asian communities, communities of writers who are POC, communities of librarians who are POC, and communities of podcasters who are POC and WOC. I’m also a part of various mental health communities. It can be overwhelming, but I try to allow myself to be available when I’m ready to be.

Get in your body

I’ve been slowly reading The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. van der Kolk, and my point is in the title. Trauma reshapes the body and the brain. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. It means that your body holds a lot of power to transform in so many ways, including through your breath, through movement, with social connection, and through neuroplasticity.

So often we think that we have to “fix” our mind, and we don’t even think about our body! First of all, you are worthy and you are not broken. You might be able to describe the thoughts in your head when you feel anxious, but are you aware about what happens in your body? Does your heart race? Do you feel tight? Hot? Does your stomach feel queasy?

Everything is connected, and our body feels trauma first. Doesn’t it make sense to get to the root?

And this brings us to the nervous system aka polyvagal theory. When we experience trauma, our body engages to protect us. It offers a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response (I’ll get into the details of polyvagal theory in a future post). When we are able to recognize how our body reacts to something that triggers our trauma, we can take steps to heal it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this has literally changed my life. I hope it can help you too :)

Of course, seeing a therapist who is trauma-informed and culturally sensitive is so important. This isn’t always easy to find as there are many therapists who adhere to more traditional forms of therapy, but the field and perspectives are growing!

How have I healed from intergenerational trauma?

I need to put my money where my mouth is, right?

First of all, what is my trauma? Not only did I experience emotional abuse and sexual trauma from my marriage, but so much of my people pleasing tendencies that showed up in that relationship were birthed from my relationship with my parents.

As I mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Who am I to talk about healing and justice?”, I hadn’t realized how the colonization of India was deeper than my personal experience within my family. India became independent from British rule around the time my parents were born, so I figured they didn’t have experience with it. Yet, I forgot that their parents and their grandparents and generations before them lived through insults and oppression from British colonizers.

Here’s a recount of the imperialist strategy of divide and conquer (emphasis by me):

The British Empire adopted the age-old political strategy of divide and conquer throughout their colonization of India. The occupiers used the strategy to turn locals against each other to help them rule the region. Whenever the British felt threatened by Indian nationalism and saw it growing, they divided the Indian people along religious lines.

In 1905, Viceroy of India Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal dividing the largely Muslim-dominated eastern section from the Hindu dominated western part. But the strategy didn't last long as Bengal was reunited in 1911. After oppressing India for 200 years, draining its wealth and filling their own coffers, the U.K. ripped the Indian subcontinent into pieces just before they finally left. The partition of 1947 that came along with India’s independence left nearly one million dead and 13 million displaced. Billions of dollars were lost in property left behind.

Not only did learnng about this history help me have compassion for my parents, but it made me wonder how it shaped them into the people they were. But connecting with my ancestors has always felt challenging to me. My father passed away 8 years ago, his parents died before I was born, and all his siblings are gone too.

It can be challenging to talk to my mom about family without it somehow turning into judgments or criticisms of me. I’ve learned how to better protect my energy, but I also have to have some boundaries. It’s always feels like a catch-22. I want to understand her perspective and experiences, but those experiences get blocked.

But thankfully, I’ve been able to talk to other family members and listen to other South Asian immigration stories. I’ve also tried to learn more about the colonization of India and freedom fighters like B.R. Ambedkar.

I’ve found so much community through getting in deep conversations with friends who have a similar backgrounds, finding those digital communities I mentioned above, and by having conversation with other Asians on my podcast MigrAsians.

I’ve also learned about how my nervous system is triggered and how to better navigate my body. I’m so much more aware of the perfectionism and anxiety that I’ve mimicked from both my parents, and now I’m able to take a few extra breaths, meditate, go for a walk, or hold myself.

I’ve also seen a therapist consistently for 8 years, and I’ve made so many breakthroughs because of it. Even when I think I have nothing to talk about, I surprise myself.

In the end…

Healing intergenerational trauma, like all healing, isn’t linear. Once you dive in, it will be ongoing and present itself to you in different trajectories. One day you’ll be digging into the colonized and/or colonist history of your ancestors, and the next day you’ll dance it out because your nervous system needs it. These might seem like separate ways to heal, but they aren’t.

The fact is you have the power to break generational cycles of trauma. This is as exciting as it is overwhelming.

When it’s too much for me, I take a deep breath and break down the tasks at hand. It starts with one conversation, reading one sentence, or taking one breath.

So hold your hand over heart, close your eyes, and say “I am the answer my ancestors needed.”